Born in London, raised in Paris, and trained in Switzerland, the United States, and the Netherlands, Adrian Bachtold's career has acknowledged few borders, which has worked to his advantage in different ways. At times when permanent positions are hard to come by--pretty much any time over the last 30 years or so--being willing and free to move to any country opens the range of opportunities, and Bachtold has enjoyed several. But to him, the value of scientific travel transcends mere logistics. "It is very important to travel a lot," Bachtold believes, "to see different groups, because the way to do research is very different [between] the United States and Europe, but [also] within Europe. You develop expertise when you are travelling and get new skills."

After all that travel, and yet some more, Bachtold, who this week was awarded a European Young Investigator award by the European Research Organisations Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCS) and the European Science Foundation (ESF), is now enjoying the feeling of being in the right place for both his professional and personal life.

A switch to nanotubes
Bachtold began his training in Switzerland, gaining a masters in physics at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in 1996. He went on to do a Ph.D. at the University of Basel to work with a professor who had been recommended to him by his supervisor. "The greatest luck of my career was to do my Ph.D. with him," says Bachtold. "He was starting a group, so he was pushing very hard for results." At first, Bachtold was unable to produce results--he spent a year studying transport in polymers with little to show for it--so he switched to nanotubes. Results began to pour in, and he graduated summa cum laude in 1999 and won a joint IBM/Swiss Physical Society prize.

After that it was off to the United States for a postdoc at the University of California at Berkeley, where he continued his work on transport in nanotubes. But when his professor left Berkeley for Cornell University in 2000, Bachtold decided not to go with him; instead, he decided to go back to Europe where he began another postdoc at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. By the time he had finished his second postdoc in 2001, Bachtold had published a paper in Nature, two in Physical Review Letters, and a couple more in lower-profile publications. He was off to a good start.

Meanwhile, Bachtold had made up his mind to look for a permanent position in France. "What is good [about France] is that you can get a permanent position when you are young," he says. His timing was good: "In Paris," he learned, "the people at the ENS (Ecole Normale Supérieure) were looking for someone that had expertise in nanotubes." The right person would fill a CR2 (chargé de recherche, deuxième classe) position offered by the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS). He got the job and joined the Mesoscopic Physics Group at the ENS in 2001, investigating the use of nanotubes as molecular connectors. Like his first project in Basel, this project yielded no results, so he changed focus yet again and began to develop techniques for determining the intrinsic resistance of nanotubes. That project proved much more successful: In 2004, he won the bronze medal of the CNRS, which rewards the scientific achievements of a young CNRS researcher.

Bachtold enjoyed his work at the CNRS, all the more, he says, because of the freedom and support he was given. "I was in charge of a group. It was small, but we had to install a lot of instruments and we had lots of results." But despite his success and his relative contentment, he soon found he needed to take advantage of one of CNRS's unique virtues: the organisation allows its scientists to work in another country for 5 years and then return to their old position or a comparable one. This allowed Bachtold to move once again, this time in order to balance his personal and professional life. "My wife is also a researcher, and she couldn't find a permanent position in Paris," he says.

Seeking double placements
So the couple started looking "around in the world [to see] where we could both have nice positions," and they found what they were looking for in Spain. Bachtold's wife secured a position at the Institut de Recerca i Tecnologia Agroalimentàries (IRTA) in Barcelona, and Bachtold himself became interested in the nearby Centro Nacional de Microelectrónica (CNM), which, as luck would have it, was planning a project that matched Bachtold's expertise and interests exceptionally well. "When I was in contact with them, they also explained [that] they wanted to create the Catalan Institute for Nanotechnology" (ICN). Construction on the new centre won't start for several months, but Bachtold has already managed to secure a permanent position as cientifico investigador to work at both the CNM and ICN.

Bachtold received what he calls a "nice start-up budget" from the ICN to launch his group. He also won a EURYI award of about €1,2 million, which "is very good for hiring students and postdocs and to buy equipment," he says, and looks good on CV. But the best thing that money buys is time. "The most important thing about having this money is to have time to do your research. For the next [few] years, I don't need to worry about money."

Bachtold has done well, but he admits that it hasn't always been easy, especially with so much moving about. "Several times I wanted to stop. I was discouraged. It is difficult when you are a postdoc. It is a little bit like [being] a mercenary: You are far from home, you are working, under stress, and you do not know what will happen in the future." But in the end it was all worth it. "Now that I am more established, it is a lot of fun."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.